When EVE Online developer CCP Games launched Dust 514, an FPS set in the EVE universe, back in 2013, it came with the ambitious promise that the two games would interconnect seamlessly. The pitch was that a pilot could bombard a planet in EVE Online and the Dust 514 players fighting on its surface could die from the blast. Despite being an okay shooter, Dust 514 never fully realized that dream of two games co-existing in one shared universe. But it's an awesome idea, which is why it's disappointing to see its spiritual successor abandon it altogether—for now, at least.
Named Project Nova, this PC-only shooter is taking another crack at the EVE Online FPS spin-off idea, only without the promise that both games will interact with each other. Instead, Project Nova will be a "hardcore" shooter melded with the usual progression systems you'd see in games like Warframe or Destiny 2. Ties to EVE Online will be purely thematic. If Project Nova is successful, CCP Games has promised to look into connecting both games, but that feels like a pretty big 'if.' Maybe Dust 514 was always overly ambitious, but without the allure of a connected universe I just can't muster enthusiasm about another shooter in an already stuffed genre of excellent games sporting deep progression systems.
When I ask game director Snorri Árnason, he tells me that one thing that will set Project Nova apart is the fact that the game will be persistent "with no sequels and no resets" and that it will demand a high degree of cooperation. "We want to provide an alternative that is for a hardcore community in the beginning," Árnason says. "We hope the Dust 514 community will pick it up, and I hope the MAG [another PS3 MMOFPS] community will pick it up too. There's this roving barbarian horde of people that want something deeper than a triple-A game. They need a home, and I think Nova could be that home for those players."
Boots on the hull
I caught just a glimpse of what Árnason is talking about when I first played Project Nova at EVE Vegas this past weekend. While it seems the bulk of Project Nova's appeal will rely on PvP battles, it will also include a PvE mode where players fight waves of cybersoldiers over a variety of objectives that supposedly will be procedural and change throughout the fight.
The demo I played only included the cooperative PvE mode, and the map was the hull of one of EVE's massive battleships, a Maelstrom. Though EVE's universe is largely player-driven, it does have quite a bit of story and lore, which Project Nova taps into. The evil Sansha's Nation are launching an invasion of New Eden to kidnap humans and their ships and use them for nefarious experiments. As elite 'Warclone' soldiers, players are sent to repel the invaders. That's why each of Project Nova's maps will actually be the hull of one of EVE's ships while, above them, other massive ships exchange volleys and explode in spectacular fashion. It's mostly just window dressing, but there's some cool ways the battles in space and on the hull intersect.
These sound like the ingredients for an exciting shooter, but this early demo of Project Nova was disappointingly boring. PvE is basically your bog-standard control mode, with three points on the map to battle over, gradually earning each side points until they reach a certain threshold and win. To contest our control over these three points, waves of Sansha's Nation soldiers drop randomly around the map in waves.
The first time I played, my team was quickly slaughtered. We didn't have a feel for how anything worked. But that's not to the credit of the enemy, which are basically space-zombies: shambling proof that adding the word 'space' in front of things doesn't make them better. For the most part, they drop onto the map and then slowly walk towards the nearest objective in a straight line, doing nothing to work together or avoid incoming fire. Sometimes they have assault rifles and other times they have shotguns, and a more interesting variant can teleport short distances and rush you for a melee attack.
In greater numbers, they can be overwhelming—but that doesn't make them threatening or interesting to fight. Even when I was outnumbered a dozen to one, I felt like I was in the world's most uninteresting shooting gallery. I'd find some cover, and just pop in and out two dozen times as I picked each enemy off one by one.
Árnason tells me this is partially the point: The PvE mode isn't looking to replicate the hyper-aggressive playstyle of human players. Instead, like Killing Floor 2 or Left 4 Dead, the idea is that there are different enemy types with their own approach to combat. The difficulty (and fun, supposedly) comes from how you respond to their layering of abilities. "We took ideas from tower defense games," Árnason says. "You see an enemy and he has a special behavior, and you're like, okay, I get this guy now. The difficulty and the complexity comes from them all coming together."
But Project Nova is going to need a lot more interesting enemy types if it hopes to achieve that goal. Right now, it all just feels mundane. Once my team understood the basics, we were able to split up and each hold a control point solo without any trouble. The idea of the PvE mode is to encourage cooperative play, but very rarely did I ever need the assistance of a teammate when I was more than capable of picking off slow-walking Sansha grunts all on my own. We went from dying in our first round to clearing the mission in under seven minutes without a single casualty.
Still, for a pre-alpha demo, the shooting was responsive and satisfying. When enemies die, they don't just ragdoll but float off into the abyss of space, whatever artificial gravity mechanism keeping their boots on the hull presumably destroyed. I like the ideas behind some of the special abilities that each character class can use, too. The Assault class, for example, has a power slide they can use to get into (or out of) sticky situations. Snipers have boosters that let them hover above the enemy to get a better angle. But, again, because these enemies are so basic I never really felt like I had to play all that skillfully. I even forgot I had grenades and health packs that I could place to heal nearby teammates.
Another forgettable ability I had was to build automated defenses at certain points around the map. Each player chooses a loadout to fight with, which includes weapons, special perks built into your armor suit, and different types of installations—essentially turrets, like a machine gun or rocket launcher or EMP emitter that disables nearby enemies.
While I like the idea, the implementation just didn't leave much room for strategic play. Because these installations don't require resources to build, there was never a choice of whether I should build one. And once they're up and running, you can basically forget they exist. My sniper could build a rocket turret, and aside from occasionally thinning the underwhelming herd of space zombies, I barely noticed it. Building them doesn't require any effort, either. I just pushed a button and then had to wait 30 seconds or so. It would've been nice if it required my team to cover me while I assembled the damn thing, but as they exist now they just don't feel all that necessary or interesting.
That's my feeling about much of what I've played of Project Nova's pre-alpha demo. With Warframe, Destiny 2, a new Battlefield, Call of Duty, and hordes of other shooters out there, there's just nothing that feels special about Project Nova besides borrowing EVE's aesthetic. And that is the least interesting thing about EVE Online. There's no sense of being a part of a giant universe of players, no economy that drives combat, and little of the high-stakes risk-taking that makes EVE so wonderful and thrilling.
I first played Project Nova two years ago at EVE's Fanfest in Iceland, and back then it was merely a proof of concept slapped together in Unreal Engine 4. Now, two years later, this demo isn't much more than that. It feels like it could be another four years before we finally see Project Nova released. Combined with its already uninspiring first impression, I just can't muster much enthusiasm for what CCP Games is trying to build. Dust 514 was flawed and never really realized its ambitions, but it at least had some. I'm not sure I can say the same for Project Nova.